Town in crisis

By Deniliquin Pastoral Times

The Wakool and district community is in crisis.

Its district farmers are being forced to find work in other states just to earn enough money to maintain stock on their properties.

Many of them have had to abandon their family traditions of growing rice as the Murray Valley still awaits an opening water allocation to grow vital food and fibre.

It’s on top of a huge population decline over the last 12 years, which has been quantified by the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s 2018 socio-economic reports as a concerning 45.6 per cent in a 2018 report.

The cumulative effect has seen the Wakool Football Netball Club dissolved due to difficulty finding enough local players to field a side in multiple grades.

It now places many of the community’s local events, which were coordinated by the club, in jeopardy.

Enrolment numbers at the Wakool Burraboi Public School are down to just 11 students.

At the time the Murray Darling Basin Plan was introduced, the school had 30 students. It has been in gradual decline ever since.

Wakool Preschool director Teisha Hill said while her student numbers are stable now she can see a decline approaching in coming years.

‘‘Compared to when I grew up in this area, there are a lot of vacant farm houses and less families,’’ she said.

Tullakool farmer Anthony Thomas, who is just one of the local farmers forced to take work in Western Australia to support the family farm, said there is no doubt the issues plaguing the Wakool district are politically driven.

He said water policies, and the inability of relevant governments and authorities to recognise the impact they are having on communities, are particularly harmful.

‘‘To me, all the governments want to do is look after the Green vote — they don’t give a rat’s about humans,’’ Mr Thomas said.

‘‘As long as they have their votes, they don’t give a damn about this country, and it’s a crying shame.

‘‘I had to come (to Western Australia) because we could not put rice in. We have no water (because NSW Murray Valley is still on zero per cent allocation), and the water we did carry over has had to be used to grow feed for the stock.

‘‘Before harvest we had organised some contract work, but the heat saw us lose that work.

‘‘I would love to still be at home but I had to do something so we could have a bit of money behind us.

‘‘If I was there (at home) I would still be trying to find work off farm, but everyone else is doing the same thing because we are all in the same boat.’’

Also working on the same farm in Western Australia doing harvesting work for a contractor is Blair Flight, who has had to leave his fiance Emma Mikkelson at the Wakool farm to look after the stock.

He said he too has had to abandon growing a rice crop this year because of water availability issues.

‘‘Because of the lack of allocation I needed to do something to earn an income, and a cousin suggested I come across to Western Australia,’’ he said.

‘‘We would normally grow rice but without water we can’t do anything.

‘‘Not being at home and not being with the family is hard to take, and not being able to do my usual (cropping) program.

‘‘And what makes it worse is that over here (in Western Australia) they are having a cracker year.

‘‘If I wasn’t here I would be at the farm just trying to keep the stock alive, and worrying about what’s to come.

‘‘All of Wakool and district is struggling. There are few farmers who can employ anybody; farmers are buying their neighbour’s properties and machinery is much more efficient now so the workforce is dropping.’’

Also heartbreaking for Mr Flight is the demise of his beloved Wakool Football Netball Club.

He was president of the club for its resurgence in 2017 after a year in recess in 2016.

Current club president Anne Hamilton said the decision to dissolve the club was forced by circumstance, and was ‘‘like the death of a family member’’.

She said unfortunately, with no club other events are unlikely to continue. These include Auskick, the Wakool Fishing Classic, regular membership draws and the annual Black Tie Ball, because it was club members who organised and ran the events.

She said the only club event that is certain to continue is the popular Wakool Sheep Races.

‘‘What’s happening is quite sad for the town,’’ Mrs Hamilton said.

‘‘The Murray Darling Basin Plan has been a huge factor in our club having to shut its doors.

‘‘The farmers at Wakool have had no water allocation which has directly affected my family as well.

‘‘My husband and son are both dairy farmers and don’t have enough water to grow feed for the cattle.

‘‘It’s all been so terrible to see what has happened to our community.’’